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Orange County’s Board of Education approved recommendations last week calling for a return to schools without masks or social distancing before giving any kind of voice to nearly 4,000 submitted comments from the community.
The idea was controversial, becoming a national conversation on multiple news stations before and after the recommendations were approved.
Public speakers at the meeting – which was streamed live on Zoom and YouTube – were widely supportive of the board’s plan.
Many viewers watching the public meeting wondered what had happened to all the comments that poured in. Voice of OC immediately filed a public records request to review the comments.
On Tuesday, OC Board of Education officials complied, first releasing an email with a batch of 50, followed later in the day by nearly 4,000.
The board’s original report called for a return to school without the use of masks or social distancing in classrooms, directly contradicting the county’s own department of education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even some of the experts that were listed as consultants on the report came out against it, saying they never saw a draft of what was released to the public.
At the meeting, only 21 speakers were allowed in, and 18 were supportive of the Board’s plan, with many thanking them for their reliance on “the actual science.”
“This is not an at risk population, and they are not going to bring this disease home to grandma and kill grandma. There is no reason to make any changes to what we are doing,” said the first speaker on the dais.
One of the other commenters allowed to speak was Dr. Jeff Barke, husband of Mari Barke, the board’s vice president. Barke has been an outspoken opponent against masks and social distancing and is opening a new charter school this year. Their relationship was not disclosed from the dais.
“Governor Gavin Newsom has once again sacrificed school aged children at precisely the moment they need them most in order to help the largest of his political backers. The states powerful teachers union,” Barke said. “It’s time for parents to reach out and call the governor and ask him to fund all schools based on enrollment.”
The first batch of 50 comments released by the OC Board of Education tell a very different story than what public commenters shared at the meeting.
To read those 50 emails, view the database at the bottom of this story.
Only four of those emails supported the Board’s decision, and only one of the commenters said they currently had children in an Orange County public school. That commenter also identified themselves as an emergency room nurse at a local hospital.
“The average age of people who die of Coronavirus is approximately 80 years old. All this to say that healthy people have a very low risk of dying of Coronavirus. Now, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t worry about Covid, I’m just stating that nearly all teachers and other staff at schools are very low risk,” the commenter said.
“No one thinks teachers are disposable. We all appreciate the effort, dedication and time that they put into a very difficult job. Whether opening schools does or does not increase your chances of acquiring the virus (which the above studies suggest it may not) I’m sure that we all concur that every possible precaution should be taken to prevent unnecessary risk.”
The rest of the emails sent were overwhelmingly against the Board of Education’s plan, and came from a variety of teachers, parents and community members who did not identify in their emails whether or not they were involved in public schools.
One high school teacher shared that she had a one-year-old son currently battling leukemia, and that she didn’t think schools would be able to handle the problems brought by the virus in person.
Because of my son’s condition, I was trained on how to live safely before Covid came about. I can promise you, schools, with hundreds to thousands of students and staff daily or weekly, are not prepared to safely manage the health situation we are dealing with,” she said.
“Starting school puts people and families like mine in danger. Teachers are ready and able to give kids the kind of instruction they need for success from a distance.”
One email template used by 20 of the commenters called for better protection for teachers, stating that returning without safeguards ignored the “bare minimum,” needed for educators.
“It is entirely irresponsible to reopen schools with the negligent procedures outlined by the white paper report. Teachers/faculty/staff should in no way be forced to choose between their livelihood and their personal and familial health,” the letter said. “Low-risk is not the same as no-risk.”
The Board of Education released the remainder of the 4,259 emails to Voice of OC on Tuesday afternoon, and they are currently under review by staff.
Editor’s Note: Voice of OC has limited resources, so we are asking for your input. If you want to see us publish the remainder of the 4,259 emails please let us know by emailing us at email@example.com.
“You are supposed to have the best interest of our students in mind when you make decisions. Use science, not politics when making those decisions,” one commenter wrote. “Thank you for considering my comments.”
Written Public Comment Database
Database of 50 of the several thousand emails received by the Orange County Board of Education in response to agenda item 2 on the July 16, 2020 public meeting regarding recommendations for the fall 2020 school year amid Coronavirus. The sentiment for or against the (at the time) draft board recommendation to reopen with no masks, social distancing or other such requirements has been discovered based on the content of each submission. View FULL SCREEN.
In-Person Comment Database
Database of the 20 in-person public comments at the July 16, 2020 Orange County Board of Education meeting. View FULL SCREEN.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.